Paper 4: Theories, Methods, & a Continuing Quest for Legitimacy

As a field growing from rhetoric and composition, writing center work and scholarship centers on the theory of teaching writing as process. Similarly North’s “Idea” of writing centers as places that support writers as opposed to individual assignments, and Bruffee’s work on collaborative learning through peer tutoring undergird the work and scholarship of writing center professionals. These theoretical frameworks have led to key practices within writing centers including the primacy of one-to-one conversations about writing, the use of non-directive or flexible methods to support writer agency, and the goal to support all students across an institution. Much of the early writing coming out of writing centers were reflections on these practices. Yet in North’s (1984) call to research, he challenges writing center scholars to move beyond just reflections and to begin to test the assumptions of the field so as to prove the worth of our practices. Writing center scholars have taken up this challenge in a myriad of ways using diverse methodologies.

Ligget, Jordan, and Price (2011) create a taxonomy of the various methodologies found in writing center center research, breaking writing center research down into three broad categories: Practitioner Inquiry, Conceptual Inquiry, and Empirical Inquiry. Each of these categories has specific methodologies. Without delving into all the methodologies they discuss, there are a few that help us understand trends within the field as a whole. The first is what they call, “Narrative Inquiry” which “employs story telling as primary means of exploring and interpreting experiences to create knowledge through insight” (p. 59). Ligget, Jordan, and Price even dubb this kind of inquiry the “home base” (p. 59) for the field. The importance of narrative and storytelling should not be underestimated; this was the primary method of scholarship used in the early days of writing center scholarship. While certainly the field has moved beyond just stories of local practice, scholars are still incredibly interested in the stories within the field.

Photograph of ladybug on leef
Geller and Denny’s use of the ladybug as a central metaphor for the optimism new writing center directors often bring to the position came from the story of a new director whose space to create a writing center, contained little, but did contain ladybugs, which she took as an auspicious sign.

Interestingly, both the article and book winners announced at this year’s IWCA conference were highly concerned with narrative. McKinney’s (2013) Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers, which I have referenced in previous papers, uses narrative theory to unpack what she calls the “writing center grand narrative” and compares the ideas within this narrative to lived experience of writing center directors described through their responses to a nationwide survey. Similarly, Geller and Denny’s (2013) article Of Ladybugs, Low Status, and Loving the Job, used interviews to examine the stories of writing center professionals honing in on the connection between attitudes and their institutional positionings. While in both of these texts narrative is no longer the methodology (with the authors relying on methods such as surveys or interviews), but instead the object of study, it does remind us of the continued importance of stories and storytelling within the field.

Another methodology Ligget, Jordan and Price identify is textual analysis. According to them, these texts could be alphabetic, visual or oral. The examination of these texts could be historical, critical, or theoretical. Scholars can analyze session notes, training materials, conference transcripts, or previous scholarship.

The word Life with the letter L comprising of many words when magnified
Those trained in literary studies might be most comfortable with close reading the texts of writing centers

Ligget, Jordan, and Price note that this is one of the most popular types of research in writing center studies because it contains “familiar methodologies to researchers trained in literary studies” (p. 64). I think this is important to understand when characterizing writing center research; like those broadly in composition in rhetoric, writing center scholars may have studied or been trained in other fields within English studies, most likely literature because of its historically dominant place within the discipline. Thus, it is not surprising that writing center scholars would use methodologies used and prized in the field of literature and eschew methodologies they might be unfamiliar with or have little significant training in.

It is perhaps this lack of training, specifically in quantitative research, that accounts for the relatively small percentage of writing center scholarship that uses what Ligget, Jordan and Price call empirical inquiry. In the article “Theory, Lore, and More: An Analysis of RAD Research in The Writing Center Journal, 1980-20091,” Driscoll and Perdue (2013) examined 270 articles published in issues of The Writing Center Journal from 1980-2009. Specifically, they were analyzing articles using Haswell’s (2005) paradigm of replicable, aggregable, and data-supported (RAD) research. They were trying to determine the degree to which the journal has demonstrated evidence-based practice in the form of RAD research. Interestingly, they found that research accounted for a total of 34% of published articles in The Writing Center Journal in the period examined, with the other 66% consisting of theoretical articles. Their rubric also revealed only 6% of the total articles could be classified as RAD research. Like Ligget, Jordan and Price, Driscoll and Perdue point to training as a possible cause for this small percentage, claiming, “Historically, many writing center program administrators (WPAs) and writing faculty (particularly in higher education) have been trained in humanistic inquiry with research concepts and methods that differ from those outlined in our Rad Research Rubric” (p. 29).

Quantitative and empirical research can seem daunting to those who don’t have specific training in it

Both Ligget, Jordan, and Price, and Driscoll and Perdue demonstrate a current trend within the field to call for more empirical research. Scholars like these urge the field to embrace this type of research to “validate our practices, to secure external credibility and funding, and to develop evidence-based practices” (Driscoll & Perdue, 2011, p. 29). I want to take a minute to unpack this quote to see how this emerging methodological trend connects to the history and major debates within the field. The third reason from this quote, “to develop evidence-based practices,” echoes North’s call for research 30 years ago that answers the question “what happens in writing tutorials?” (p. 29), showing that the need for evidence-based practice is still a major concern of the field. The first reason, “validate our practices,” also connects back to North, though this time to his iconic “Idea of a Writing Center” and the blatant frustration his essay displays with writing centers not being understood or taken seriously. This history of marginalization is inextricable with current calls for empirical methods. Since these methods are generally well accepted institutionally, their use can offer legitimacy to writing center studies as scholars use methods that other disciplines perceive as “valid.” Finally, the second reason, “to secure external credibility and funding” again points to issues of legitimacy, but also suggests the material reality many writing centers face. Writing center directors are not only concerned with academic prestige, but also the literal ability to exist within an institution. Having funding cut is a real threat facing many writing centers. Empirical data can be the best way to communicate value to administrations that have little understanding and may care to have little understanding of the theoretical contexts of writing centers. Empirical research thus may not only support the field, but can very locally help ensure the survival of a specific writing center.

Yet, if I learned anything from attending the 2014 IWCA/NCPTW Conference, it is that empirical research is unlikely to ever make narrative and storytelling obsolete within writing center studies. As I sat in on presentations from presenters as various as the current editor of College English to a high school junior peer tutor, I was struck by how vibrant and necessary the conversations between practice and research are in this field. Stories are often where the research starts and stories are how the field contextualizes the research conducted. And I think this makes sense for a field centered on one-to-one conversations about writing. If we lose sight of the individual we lose sight of the central concept of the writing center as a transformational space.


Bruffee, K. (1984). Peer Tutoring and “the conversation of mankind.”  In G. A Olsen (Ed.), Writing centers: Theory and administration (pp.3-15). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Driscoll, D., & Perdue, S. (2012). Theory, Lore, and More: An Analysis of RAD Research in The Writing Center Journal, 1980-20091. Writing Center Journal, 32(2), 11-39.

Geller, A., & Denny, H. (2013). Of Ladybugs, Low Status, and Loving the Job: Writing Center Professionals Navigating Their Careers. Writing Center Journal, 33(1), 96-129.

Liggett, S., Jordan, K., & Price, S. (2011). Mapping Knowledge-Making in Writing Center Research: A Taxonomy of Methodologies. Writing Center Journal, 31(2), 50-88.

McKinney, J. G. (2013) Peripheral visions for writing centers. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

North, S. (1984). The idea of a writing center. College English, 46 (5), 433-446.

North, S. (1984). Writing center research: Testing Our Assumptions. In G.A. Olson (Ed.), Writing Centers Theory and Administration. (pp. 24-35). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

3 Replies to “Paper 4: Theories, Methods, & a Continuing Quest for Legitimacy”

  1. Your blog has been inspiring to me this term as I am beginning to lean more into WC scholarship, along with research skills in the first year, so I’m compiling a list of most of your posts to read in more detail once class is over, as well as the authors you’ve listed. So thank you! As you explored theories and methodologies in WCs for this week, the focus on support of students across the curriculum, rather than a focus on individual assignments is what I am drawn to, as we struggle with that in our first year seminars. How do we help students become better thinkers, better writers and more critical readers/researchers — providing them with learning experiences that transcend the “get it done for the assignment” mentalities. Looking at North’s and Bruffee’s work — as related to collaborative learning and peer support, and the methodologies outlined by Ligget, Jordan and Price, especially ways of inquiry give me ideas to draw from for my own courses. I have begun using the “tell a story” framework even in research -writing, so I appreciate having a methodology that gives name to my madness! 🙂

    It is unfortunate that there is the need to prove the worth of writing centers, as we are looking at ways of expanding the help to students, as needs move beyond peer support into more in-depth support.

    The lack of empirical research is also one of the criticisms about librarianship — in that there is a lot of practical, “here’s what we do” — so I look forward to reading more about how this aligns with the WC scholarship, in Driscoll and Perdue’s article.

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